Shooting Live Music - A Primer
I've been shooting music for over ten years now, starting out at a free battle of the bands before becoming a venue photographer whilst working as the photo editor for my university magazine. More recently I've joined an online magazine whom I both photograph and write for. I've experience shooting all types of music act, from shooting at the back of small rooms above pubs to working in the security pit of the largest arenas in the world.
This started out as a reply to a post on a forum, but I thought 'Hey! Perfect opportunity to transform into a blog post!'. So buckle up as I share some tips, tricks and other guidance from my time working as a music photographer.
I'm putting this first. Have fun. Not everyone gets the chance to photograph some of their favourite bands from the press pit. We've all been at a gig and taken pictures on our phone, but nothing beats getting the opportunity to do it this close.
Be proud of what you capture. Save it, share it, print it.
Have fun. Relish the experience. But remember you have a job to do.
General Tips & Tricks
- Earplugs. Always wear earplugs (or defenders). I've had mild tinnitus for about ten years. You don't want tinnitus. Protect your hearing. At the end of the day think of this as work, rather than attending a gig recreationally, the more you attend, the greater chance you can get of doing yourself damage. Invest in a decent pair of reusable ones, or even some over ear defenders. Always keep some foam ones in your camera bag just in case you forget them. If you do forget them, have a word with escorts, security, lighting engineers and even bar staff to see if they have some disposable ones you can have.
- Lighting can quite frankly be a bastard. From the dreaded red lighting putting a horrible colour cast on everything, to backlit, to dimlit. You can have off days where as much as you try, you don't think get anything compelling, a good editor will recognise this and appreciate you got something.
- Move. Don't think you find a great spot and end up rooting yourself to the ground. This can just make all your images look samey especially if all band members stay in the same place on stage. Find alternative angles.
- Learn to be adaptable. Gig photography is fast paced, and you may have to very quickly change the way you're shooting.
- Avoid excessive chimping. Yes you may need to ensure exposure is correct on images, but be quick otherwise you could very well miss 'the money shot'. Newer mirrorless cameras with electronic viewfinders are great for this, as you get an instant response of what the image looks like without having to stop looking through the viewfinder.
- Focus your subject on your selected focus point and shoot (then crop in post). If you come from a more portraiture background, you'll be used to focussing and recomposing. Gigs are fast paced. You may not get the chance to keep the subject in focus AND recompose. Best thing to do is set the focus point where you want it focus using it and trying to nail the focus, worrying about composing in post, so make sure to include excess space.
Shooting landscape also gives you a better opportunity to choose either portrait or landscape of the same image.
- In similar vein to above; don't worry about back button focussing either, unless your focus is and can track.
- Shoot people from an angle rather than directly underneath/straight on, you can get some great shots from underneath, but you can also get a great picture up their nose!
- Backlit acts with no spotlights can be horrible, you can end up with a greatly overexposed background and underexposed subject, requiring some real work to prevent the image looking flat and lacking contrast.
- Ensure any images delivered or stuck in your portfolio are compelling. Go for quality not quantity. Try get the artist doing something; giving it all into a microphone, interacting with the crowd, jumping around. Wait for the stage effects like fire, sparks or CO2 blasts.
- Cross shots are a great way to get both the artist and the crowd in a single shot.
- Some shows are more like stage performances, with some artists taking much pride with these types of shows (Alice Cooper for example). Try capture as much of the narrative and the performance as you can.
- Watch out for stage furniture, amps, mic stands and other things in the way in your images. They can take up large chunks of the frame and look unsightly. Smaller things like mic stands can be removed in post, but try to frame your subject between amps and other large furniture.
- Think about arms. As weird as that may sound. If a singer is right handed and using a wireless mic, shoot them from their left. This prevents getting a microphone and/or arm covering their face.
- Theatre gigs are hard, they tend not to have a press pit meaning you have to shoot from the sides and the back, along with the usual three song restrictions. Be warned due to limited positioning there is a risk many images can end up looking the same, so make sure you move when you can.
- Read the confirmation email thoroughly. Pack appropriatly. If it says you have pit access, don't worry about things like a super telephoto. Likewise if it says front of house don't worry about an ultra wide angle. They also tend to say where to go to pick up any passes or where to find guestlist and contain a point of contact if things aren't going to plan.
- If shooting from the crowd, make sure you get there early in order to grab a good starting point, but be warned people will always get in your way!
- If possible read reviews and check out images of the previous performances on a tour. This can give you an insight of the stage setup, lighting and what works/doesn't work well when it comes to taking your pictures.
- Shooting the crowd can be great, and can get some great candids, however you do run the risk of missing something on stage. It's a great way to fill time whilst waiting for an act.
- Don't worry about getting in the front row punters way. You are there to do a job and are usually there for ten minutes. They can lump it. If however you are not in a pit, but can shoot an entire set, you should maybe make your own decisions about how long you can get away with annoying the paying customers.
- In the pit. Listen to security. You will usually receive a primer beforehand, but some acts use pyrotechnics in their performance. Security may have to move you out the way so you don't get burnt. Literally.
- Storage is cheap BUT the more images you take, the more you have to wade through in the selection process.
- Always shoot the support. Some editors may require images for the editorials anyway, but it can get you used to the venue and lighting and its extra images for your back catalogue.
- Make sure you have adequate insurance and make sure it has public liability.
- DO NOT take a picture of your press pass and post on social media. It has been known for fakes to be made and people gaining entry to the site via them. Worst case, you get caught by the promoters, and both you and whoever you are shooting for are blacklisted.
- Make sure you keep your passes they make lovely souvenirs in years to come.
- Know your terminology. Security/press pit is the bit at the front behind the barrier in front of the stage. Front of house is usually at the soundbooth.
- Backup your images as soon as possible. Try explaining to a photo editor that you had a computer failure and can't give them their awaiting front page image. I backup all my images offsite as well as locally.
- Don't argue with releases and stick to them. At the end of the day if you want to fight them, a record label will probably have more resources than you to fight back. Ignoring them is a quick way to get you and maybe even your publication blacklisted. It's just not worth it.
- Beware of right grabbing releases. Especially if they require things like editorial oversight and ownership of all images. These things can and do happen, don't be afraid to walk away if you're not happy.
- Gig photographers are a totally different brand to other types of photographers. They tend to me much more social and willing to help their fellow man. There's no 'secrets' or 'treasures'. They tend to be a bit gruffer and grumpier than your average hobbyist!
- If you can see it from the stage, take a picture of the setlist, at a minimum this is a shot from a gig (life saver if the lighting is horrendous) but can also be really useful for any reviewer.
- Take a picture of your gear, including serial numbers. Not to narcissistically share on social media but to ensure you have a record of what you have in case the worst happens.
- This is aimed at newbies, but I think it;s relevant, as heads can immediately go there. Don't cash out. You may think that the local singer or band you've been asked to shoot could be the next Beatles or Adele. The chances are they won't be. Even if they are don't expect to be making big bucks from the images. Yes they can be a handy little earner later down the route from 'their early years'. Never underestimate a proud parent or other half. These guys will have loads of pictures, especially from areas you won't have access. The only ones you are likely to be able to profit off on the short term are artists doing things they shouldn't be to the tabloids. If you want to attempt to earn anything, try adding them to stock image sites.
- Leading on from the previous point... don't be that guy! Don't be running off to the tabloids with a damning picture to make some quick cash. You could ruin a life or a career, at the same time you can be quite easily damage your own career, as it could lead from an artist not wanting to work with you or your publication to either being blacklisted.
In fact it's easier just to delete them.
- Earplugs again. I wasn't joking. This is why I've put it again!
- Shoot the widest aperture possible. Most of the time this will be f/2.8 or larger.
- You want the highest shutter speed you can afford without having to sacrifice ISO. Ideally something over 1/200s to avoid motion blur. Occasionly, depending on the lighting, such as LED panels, you may need slower due to the refresh rate of the panels.
- You want the lowest ISO you can get away with. Unless it's the afternoon at a festival, it's not likely to be ISO100.
- ISO12800 and above exist for a reason, especially for much newer cameras. Sometimes a venue can be so dark you have to push these levels to get anything usable. Dont let the high numbers scare you. These levels are perfectly usable especially if you have to export to a fraction of the size of the original image. Just be prepared to add some noise reduction in post.
A grainy shot, is better than no shot.
- Shoot RAW. RAW gives you so much more flexibility in post with adjusting exposure and white balance. On the flipside, they are much bigger filesizes.. so buy extra hard drives to compensate!
- I shoot manual. Switching between manual ISO and auto ISO (for when the lighting is extremely variable and quicker then I can adjust manually) .
- If using any form if auto mode. Use spot metering to ensure the subject is correctly exposed.
- Although it doesnt matter shooting RAW, I tend to use auto white balance, but this is something I pretty much always play with in post.
- Set your camera screen to black & white. This let's you check that the images are exposed correctly without having to worry about lighting colours. Be warned if shooting JPEG, this can mean all your captured images will be black and white.
- Don't scrimp on gear. Gear is important, probably more so than most other forms of photography as it can mean the difference between getting the shot and not.
- Gig photography is not known for it's perfect lighting conditions. You are going to need gear that can close to seeing in the dark as possible. Sadly this will mean wide apertured and fast focussing lenses and full frame bodies that can handle high ISO. Both of which are usually accompanied by a hefty price tag.
I ended up getting a job whilst at university just to allow me to buy gear. I understand the pain.
- Zoom lenses are king. Unlike say a studio environment where you can zoom with your feet, you may not necessarily get the opportunity to. By taking the zoom lens route, you get the versatility at the sacrifice of the wider apertures a prime can facilitate. My goto lens are the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM II and the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS USM II, but I also carry a Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L USM II and a Canon Extender EF 2x III.
That said, primes tend to have a wider aperture.
- If you can, shoot two bodies. One on each shoulder, one with a mid range zoom and another with a telephoto. This saves lens switching in the middle of an act or worrying inbetween songs.
- If you're especially lucky, shoot three bodies and add a super telephoto such as a 300mm f/2.8 to the mix.
- If in the market for a new camera, look at ones which have two card slots, and it can write simultaneously to both of them. This gives you data redundancy by immediatly having two copies. Useful if you accidently leave on a train (I write this after leaving my backup SD card on a train the night before).
- If shooting two or more cameras, make sure you have them set at the same time! I set mine to UTC (GMT) and keep it like this across timezones. I come from a software engineering background so it's second nature to me. If this bothers you, after the fact, it's something that can be adjusted super easily in Lightroom. You may have to periodically check every few months that they are still synced though.
- Don't knock extenders, and if you can, always keep one in your bag, especially if you're not fortunate enought to have a 3 or 400mm. Occasionly you find yourself having to shoot from the sound desk, and that thing will become a show saver for you.
- An ultrawide angle or a fish eye can create some really distinctive images, especially if you shoot wide enough to get both the act, the crowd AND stage effects in shot.
- Learn how to use your gear in the dark. Where all the buttons are, how to change focus points etc. Literally and figuratively. You could very well be working in the dark and/or with a camera up to your face the whole time.
- If you plan on shooting festivals, make sure your gear is weather sealed.
- Get cards with a high write speed. There's nothing worse then shooting continuous then having to wait for your images to be written to card.
- Don't bring a flash if you don't have to. It will just be dead weight at the end of the day, especially if you won't be allowed to use it.
- Lens/belt pouches for lenses are great. Many venues for health, safety & security reasons won't allow you to bring a bag in, (some may allow one in the pit out the way). Chuck a couple of lens pouches on your belt and it allows you to bring extra kit such as an UWA or an extender or will save digging round a bag in the dark.
- Invest in a harness, especially if you're shooting two cameras. You won't need to worry about one falling off a shoulder, plus they're great for weight distribution, so your body will thank you!
- Get a decent two strapped backpack as well. It's not uncommon (especially for me) to end up having to trek across a city and/or have to wait at a venue for a while. That gear on your back will get heavy. I have a lowepro one which can take everything, and I have actually climbed mountains wearing it.
- Buy a stepladder or step. B&Q have small foldable steps that you can easily clip to a rucksack.
- Get a lanyard and pouch to put your pass in (and keep a spare in your bag), this saves having to worry about sticking it to you and preserves it much better if you plan on keeping it.
- Festivals are hard work. Don't let people tell you otherwise. They're outside, you're on your feet for usually a whole weekend, can end up walking from stage to stage across a large site, in all kinds of weather. You will probably end up lugging all your gear with you from stage to stage and that can get heavy fast. You can shoot several thousand images, not have time to grab a bite to eat, deal with crowds, mud and the transport rush at the end. Then have to go through it all the next day. They can be great fun though, and the opportunity to grab some great images.
- Review the lineup beforehand, prioritise who you want to see and bring this list with you. You usually get stage splits with timings when your at the event.
- Take into account the time required from getting from stage to stage, as well as usually having to be at the act before they start.
- Check the weather beforehand and keep an eye on it throughout the day. If rain is likely, it's a possibility that area of high traffic could turn into a muddy slip'n'slide and any tents will quickly fill up and extremly humid (so watch your lenses steam up). On the flipside, it can mean you can get some great shots in the middle of a downpour.
- Make sure you wear suitable footwear. Make sure they're comfortable and you can spend the whole day standing up in them. If rain is a possibility, make sure they're waterproof and can deal with mud. You don't want to slip over, land on your backside and end up with a camera covered in mud or worse.
- Keep a camera out at all times. Festivals are great for crowd shots, and there's usually something always going on! Ideally don't pack them away between acts or whilst you're walking. If you're late for a set you're going to want to get shooting quickly.
- Pack wisely. You don't want to pack everything, and the kitchen sink, especially if it's going to be on your back all day (sometimes there may be a press area you can leave bits in) Don't bring things you won't need, like tripods or lighting. At the same time, you don't want to find that you've only brought telephoto lenses and are unable to shoot in some of the smaller stages. Try not to double up on focal lengths if you can help it. Make sure you cover as wide a range as possible. Make sure you have plenty of memory cards and spare batteries. Bring an empty bottle, one that can be thrown away if it's not allowed in. Most, if not all, festivals having a drinking water tap to allow you to fill bottles with water. Check the weather, you may want to chuck in sun cream or a waterproof depending what's going on. I live in sunglasses anyway, but a hat is also useful, especially for us follically challenged! If you have a journey home at the beginning/end. Bring a lightweight laptop or tablet. This allows you to maybe get a headstart on editing on your journey home or way in.
- Shoot everywhere. From the press pit, to the back of the crowd, in the crowd, to the side of the crowd. Outside of the pit you're usually not restricted to the three songs no flash rule either.
- Get there early (at least on the first day). Granted there may be no acts you want to shoot on yet, but it allows you to get use to the layout, plan your day and cut your teeth on some of the less headline acts. Also it's less busy, more chilled and people are considerably more sober.
- Don't drink. It may be tempting to join in with the grossly over inflated cold yet refreshing pints. But you're there to do a job. It can affect the quality of your photos and in some cases void your insurance. If you feel you have to have a drink, save it to later on in the day, and ideally once you've finished shooting. Even if you're done, you will probably still have your gear on you, so...
- Make friends with the press runners/escorts. These are the guys who let you into press areas at stages. They're usually all lovely people. The ones at South West Four Festival have always been great, getting namedropped in my reviews. At the end of the day if these guys remember you and kinda know your schedule, they'll wait for you if they're expecting you, plus they're usually the guys keeping an eye on times.
- Work with drunk people. You will get hassled, like moths to a flame they love a camera between stages. Be polite but firm if necessary, you're there to do a job. That said, they can make for some excellent pictures. Just make sure nothing illicit is being promoted.
- Stay hydrated. It's quite easy to get dehydrated, especially in the summer sun. Some festivals well known soft drink manufacturers give out cans all day as promotions. Make sure to keep paying them a visit, especially if the bars are selling it (usually at quite a high price!).
- Buy a reusable waterproof poncho. A big one. One you can throw over you and all your gear which you can quickly put on and take off.
- If it rains, make sure to dry all your equipment when you get home. Air out your bags and any waterproofs.
- Just like any event keep your wits about you. Pickpockets are at work. Walking along with several cameras, bags etc makes you an obvious target. Last thing you want is to put your hand in your pocket and find that your card wallet's been pinched!
- Quick turnaround is usually key, especially for publication. You don't want to be sitting there editing an entire set if your editor is expecting 12 images to accompany an article. You will need to make sure your workflow is quick and smooth. Choosing the best images to edit is usually the most time consuming part.
Spend the time to perfect your workflow and don't be afraid to attend or pay for workshops to help you improve.
- Dont do a full commercial or beauty style retouch. Its not the right situation! Focus on white balance, exposure correction, colour, noise reduction, sharpening and removing distractions.
- Master noise reduction tools. The one in Lightroom is pretty great.
- Content aware fill in Photoshop is brilliant and quick for removing unslightly distractions.
- Think about export sizes. If your editor doesnt needn't any larger than say 1350px x 900px, dont waste time worrying about the slightest smell of noise. As after export/saving for distribution will it be noticeable? This same philosophy means you can get away with much more, be it focus, and motion blur.
- Train journeys home are great for rating and culling images. If you can bring a lightweight laptop and get started ASAP.
- Set up a dedicated work area at home, well lit, with desk and enough space for all your peripherals.
- Make sure your screens are calibrated. Especially for gamma. This has a real impact on the colours and exposure.
- You can't beat GOOD hardware. Make sure it has adequate RAM, processing power and graphics card. An SSD is also crucial to speed things up. I begrudgingly recently changed to a Macbook Pro (i9, 32GB RAM, 4GB graphics). Adobe CC suite runs ridiculously smoothly. Don't get me wrong, I'm still not a fan of Apple or MacOS but I dont intend to be editing on Windows again.
- Don't delete original images. You may find yourself revisiting old images as you get better and end up re-editing them!. I should know, that's how I've been spending some of the 2020 lockdown! But this applies to everything.
- It's an endless loop. Most outfits require you to have suitable experience before working for them. How can you get the experience if no one will let you shoot for them?
- Everyone has to start somewhere.
- Shoot free events. Many towns do free music festivals in their parks. Go along. Bring your camera and shoot.
- Get in contact with local music venues, such as gigs held in the backroom of a pub. If they have any nights of open mic or unsigned talent ask if you can come along and work on getting some pictures.
- If you get the chance to work for someone, be it a publication or a promoter don't expect to be shooting the sell out stadium gigs first time around. They have to get to know you and you them, you've got a foot in the door but may well have to work up an internal ladder.
- Get a job working as a nightclub photographer. This is work I wouldn't wish on anyone but will allow you to build up some work, and many nightclubs also have minor gigs and celebrities to gain some experience shooting, especially in low and changing lighting.
- If you are a student get onto the student magazine. This is where I started out. We were lucky, because of this it allowed us to get press credentials to several local gigs and festivals.
Many up and coming artists (as well as some more renowned for cheese) play the student circuit, maybe giving you the opportunity to shoot some artists before they become mega.
- No outfit has a guarantee of a pass to any event. But outfits with a better reputation and good relationships with PR companies have a better chance. Not turning up to events where a pass has been obtained in your name can damage these relationships.
- Become a writer! This will give you entry into an organisation, and there's usually more photographers then there are writers! From there start building up, apply to write smaller gigs with no photographers attached, and offer to photograph as well.
Do Your Own Thing
This should be used as a guide. Make your own destiny. This is the way I shoot, for me it's right but for others it could be completely different. For example, I know some photographers don't adjust white balance where as I tend to attack it violently, I know others shoot JPEG over RAW. I also tend to constantly tweak and adapt the way I shoot.
Do what is right for you.
Apart from ear protection. That stuff's important.